Published On: Fri, Jun 16th, 2017

Where Do We Draw The Line With Robots?

There is no question that we are living in a world of robots and that the future may even, in some odd ways, belong to them – or those. What pronoun do you use for robots, anyway?

Before we look at what the next wave of robots will look like (program: Wave hello!), let us not forget that we already live in a world virtually crowded with robots. How do you blend your protein shake in the morning? Not by hand, I grant you. How do you get from here to there? Cars, of course, are not robots that replaced humans, since we still do the driving. But you could call a car a robot horse. The horse is out of work these days, thanks to farm tractors, cars, railroads and all manner of mechanical options.

A painter might call a camera a robot – a very fast robot at that. Meanwhile a factory worker might feel threatened by what’s just around the corner in terms of advancement, forgetting that millions of jobs have already been erased through motorized factory work. The assembly line itself displaced hundreds of thousands of jobs over the years.

Google is grabbing headlines as the developer of the autonomous car. Their driver-less vehicle has been on the road for years now, doing what it is less likely every day to do in the future: Driving its owners to work. In the future, those driver-less commuters might have nowhere to go, because their owners will be working from home. Even the driver-less car, before it arrives, is threatened by progress.

This gets us to the topic of the day: Drawing the line. When will robots go too far? I don’t think that the line will be drawn by robots that (or who) learn to think for themselves or develop assembly-line reproductive capacities. I think the line will be drawn by mankind admitting that work is actually good for them. We enjoy our jobs. We feel good about ourselves because of them.

The motorized scooter is an excellent example of where robotics meet up with our basic needs. Even motorized scooters are becoming more autonomous – and with planes able to fly without a pilot and cars able to drive without a driver, we are not far away from autonomous scooters shuffling the infirm and the elderly from parking lots to stores or concerts or anywhere else.

The older I got the more I began to question my need to drive a car with a manual clutch. My new car has an automatic transmission – robotics that shift gears for me. I couldn’t be happier. What the heck was I doing all those years hassling with a manual clutch, anyway?

You’ll find scooters at Quingo (at quingousa.com) that unload themselves from your car, down a pull-out ramp. How many folks of advanced years or physical limitations really enjoy hefting their private scooter from the back of their car to the parking lot? There are places – this is the point here – where automation should keep its job-stealing mitts to itself. There are other places – clutches and self-unloading scooters – where the response is: Bring it. I don’t want a robot in bed with me, but I wouldn’t mind a robot who (that) makes the bed, if you know what I mean.

Are we safe with a future of robots coming our way? The answer is yes and no. We are safe from most of the hyper-drive fantasies cooked up by Hollywood writers – robots that turn on their masters individually or go to war with them. I think we’re safe from falling in love with our robots or becoming emotionally attached. I love my laptop, but not in that way, if you know what I mean. (We’ve decided to keep it as a friendly, business-like relationship.)

Google’s autonomous cars – including the first of the fleet, called Waymo – have famously driven 1.7 million miles without an accident or giving lip to a cop when pulled over. Actually, they never get pulled over. They are by-the-book drivers (re: boring), using an array of detection equipment (cameras, radar, sonar, etc.) and global-positioning technology to know where they are and when to take turns or slam on the brakes.

The problem – wouldn’t you know – is when humans decide to take over. Humans can drive fine from driveway to parking lot, but if they try to intervene in the middle of a drive, they have to adapt to the driving conditions, which they can do if they started out behind the wheel. By jumping in, they have to know the conditions with no learning curve. Oops. It takes a minute or two of driving for humans to become as safe behind the wheel as they are in the back seat.

Maybe that’s when the war with robots will start. It will begin with road rage. The robot will remain calm, while the human becomes emotional. They will call each other names. “You pile of junk!”

“You silly human!”

Feelings will be hurt, but only one can get home without the other. The car will leave in a huff. The human will have to bum a ride from someone else.

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